SFU students win hackathon with heartbeat-sending app

March 06, 2016

A team of computing science students from SFU has created an app to help people in long-distance relationships feel their partners’ heartbeat from anywhere in the world.

The team, who dubbed themselves “The Coffeeboys,” won first prize for the app at a Valentine’s-themed hackathon – a round-the-clock coding marathon – hosted at SFU’s Burnaby campus on February 12.

“We wrote an algorithm that tracks the average colour of your skin and detects a heartbeat when it notices a significant variation,” says Aaryaman Girish, Coffeeboys team member.

More than 30 students competed in the timed event, which spanned 24 hours and tested skills in programming, design, creativity, time management and problem solving.

“Great teamwork and tons of coffee helped tide the fatigue along the way,” says Alex Land, Coffeeboys team member.

“I know that working with these guys in a hackathon is awesome because communication is never an issue. We met in the first week of orientation and we’ve stuck together since.”

How it works, explained by team:

Every time your heart sends a pulse through the body, the small capillaries in the skin expand. With your fingertip over the camera lens and flash, the smartphone’s flash can illuminate the skin and capture the subtle colour changes that occur each time the heart beats.

Once a pulse is detected, the app allows the user to “send” their heartbeat to a partner in real time in the form of synchronized vibrations and a pulsing heart animation.

The team also incorporated a health-monitoring graph feature that helps users track their heart rate over time.

Girish says the app was somewhat of a surprise hit for the team, who also took home the top prize at last year’s hackathon with a post-apocalyptic Morse code translator app.

“For us, it was just a cool Valentine’s Day app, but we talked to a bunch of people who were in long-distance relationships and they said they would love to use it,” says Girish.

Busy schedules mean the team may not have time to bring the Heartbeat app from prototype to fully functioning. However, the code is open source and free to access by the public, so the team encourages fellow hackers to pull it down and have a go.  

While they wouldn’t rule out refining the app for a future launch, perhaps for next year’s Valentine’s Day, they say they’re already looking forward to their next hacking challenge.  

“It’s a really fun time,” says Land. “You spend some time doing something that’s a cool challenge and then, when people say ‘I want to use this!’ it’s a really great feeling. We’ll definitely take part in the hackathon next year.”